From Studio to Screen: When Musicians Become Actors

Nicole Okpokiri

With the buzz surrounding the impending release of Don’t Worry Darling, Harry Styles’ lead acting debut, and the announcement that Ariana Grande is to play Glinda in the long-awaited Wicked film adaptation, it seems that singers are keen to foray into the world of acting, especially following the success of Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born (2018). Nicole Okpokiri looks at this phenomenon and how musicians have found their way onto the screen, but not all have chosen the same path.

There have been many singers and musicians that have tried their hand at acting to varying degrees of success. Acting can be a way for singers to prove themselves to be a diverse talent by taking on another craft within the entertainment industry, sometimes with the hopes of winning prestigious awards or becoming a box office success.

Some singers inevitably face backlash for being cast in films, especially in lead roles where they can be accused of being casted for the money and attention they may bring a film, rather than their talent. Most singers are not professionally trained in acting and prefer to appear on screen in supporting or cameo roles, such as Taylor Swift, who has been featured in large ensemble cast films such as Valentine’s Day (2010) and the controversial Cats (2019), or Rihanna, who has appeared as herself in comedy films Bring It On: All or Nothing (2006) and This Is The End (2013). As these roles tend to be comedic and relatively low stakes, they are favourable to singers as there is less for their performance to be critiqued on as they have less to do.

Many singers naturally move to the screen through appearances in musicals, which can be divided into two subcategories: movies about musicians (either biographical or fictional) and movie musicals. The first category can be considered somewhat meta, as singers play actual musicians in roles that likely mirror their own paths to stardom, such as Prince in Purple Rain (1984) or Mariah Carey in the infamous Glitter (2001). These roles often result in artists creating songs or soundtracks that accompany the films in hopes of an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song, as was the case when Lady Gaga won in 2018 for ‘Shallow’. These songs can also prove to be incredibly lucrative for a musician, but none more than Whitney Houston’s ‘The Bodyguard: Original Soundtrack Album,’ which remains the best-selling album by a woman in music history, winning the Grammy award for Album of The Year and spawning some of Houston’s most known singles, including ‘I Have Nothing’ and ‘I Will Always Love You’.

Alternatively, there are some singers that consistently appear in movie musicals, blending the two worlds of acting and singing together on screen. Beyoncé made her screen debut in the musical drama Carmen: A Hip Hopera (2001) and has continued to lend her vocal and acting skills to other musicals, such as The Fighting Temptations (2003), Dreamgirls (2006) and Disney’s The Lion King (2019) remake. Barbra Streisand, perhaps the most successful singer turned movie musical actress, won an Academy Award for Funny Girl (1968), widely regarded as one of the greatest musical films of all time, although her path to the screen differs from most as she was reprising a role that she initially played on stage in the Broadway musical. Starring in movies with musical elements can partially silence casting critics, as it can be argued that although they may not primarily be actors, a singer is qualified to perform the musical elements of these films that are integral to the character.

Of the singers that pursue acting careers, there are a small number who manage to become more known for their onscreen roles than they ever were for their music. The list of actors whose subsequent film careers have become bigger their singing careers is short and somewhat subjective, often depending on who is asking and when they were born. For instance, rapper Ice Cube is known to many for his contributions to gangster rap as a founding member of the hip-hop group N.W.A., however those born after the millennium are more likely to recognise him from 21 Jump Street (2012), Ride Along (2014) and their sequels, all which grossed over $100 million at the worldwide box office.

There does seem to be a natural crossover between the worlds of singing and acting as both involve performing

Additionally, Oscar winner Will Smith is arguably one of the most famous musician turned actors, beginning his career as one half of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, a stage name which the sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, was built around. Smith’s music has been linked to his acting career, with songs like ‘Wild Wild West’ and ‘Men in Black’ accompanying films of the same name, however he effectively retired from music in 2005 and went on to become one of Hollywood’s most recognisable stars.

Ultimately, with the many different path’s singers can take into acting there does seem to be a natural crossover between the worlds of singing and acting as both involve performing. Despite the critics, this phenomenon does not appear to be stopping anytime soon, with artists such as Dua Lipa and Rina Sawayama set to star in the upcoming films Argylle and John Wick: Chapter 4 respectively. It seems that we will continue to see more singers on our screens and perhaps in the future some may even join those whose acting careers eclipse their musical ones.

Nicole Okpokiri

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